Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman in the U.S. to become a federal judge, once said, “Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.” The notion that history moves in the direction of progress is an encouraging sentiment as the March celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day are honored.
The countless women who’ve figured prominently in history have made what once seemed impossible possible—whether it was gaining the right to vote, making scientific breakthroughs, or attaining positions of power normally reserved for men. While we often limit our study of women’s history to events in the past, current affairs and even future possibilities are also powerful ways to view women’s journey toward equality. As educators we can help students explore not only the achievements of the past but the progress of the present and the promise of the future—celebrating, informing, and challenging stereotypes.
Naturally, Women’s History Month tends to highlight women who’ve made great strides on a national level, women like Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, or Sandra Day O’Connor. Yet there are thousands of lesser-known history makers with contributions as meaningful. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, was full of women who worked tirelessly for equality—such as Ella Baker and Septima Poinsette Clark—but without the recognition. If we’re willing to dig a little deeper and consider alternate sources of historical records, we can also find deeply personal and engaging stories about how history shaped—and was shaped by—the women of different races, faiths and cultures. Consider seeking out stories, either written or oral, to explore these histories.
Having studied the past, students can better assess the present. How far have women come, and what has yet to be achieved? We can look at the prominence of women in power in politics, business, science, the arts, and even sports, but then also acknowledge inequalities that women still face—issues of compensation, access to education, and domestic violence. Stressing that women’s rights are human rights, educators can help boys and girls alike understand the need to work for justice.
With the perspectives of the past and present in mind, students can then imagine the future. What will history look like 10, 50 or 100 years from now? What will women have accomplished? What can we do to move things forward?
Women’s History Month is a great time to understand where women have come from, what they’re achieving today, and what the future may hold. In studying the past, present, and future, we can help students understand the need to work toward equality and justice for all people.